Read The Bell Online

Authors: Iris Murdoch

The Bell (10 page)

BOOK: The Bell
He turned to Toby. ‘I expect you'd like to go to bed, young man. They've probably told you to get up at a shocking hour. And it must be tiring at your age to meet such a bunch of crazies in a day.'
tired,' said Toby. ‘I think I'll go up.' He looked Nick firmly in the face, determined not to let him see that he was nervous.
‘Up, yes,' said Nick. He turned to where Murphy, who had completed his supper, was standing meditating. ‘Up!' he shouted to the dog.
Murphy turned quickly and sprang into the air. Nick caught him in his arms and cuddled him against his chest. The dog's paws and smiling jaws appeared over his shoulder.
‘The great thing about a dog', said Nick, ‘is that it can be
to love you.' He learned over the table to seize the neck of the whisky bottle, went slowly from the room, with Toby following, and began heavily to ascend the stairs, still hugging the dog against him, to a small landing with three doors.
‘That's the bathroom,' said Nick. ‘My room, your room.' He kicked open the door and turned the electric light on with his elbow.
Toby saw a neat fresh room, an iron bedstead with a white cover, rush mats on the floor, a white painted chest of drawers, the window open wide. The night air, warmer and smelling of flowers, came to them as they entered.
‘It's nice up here, isn't it?' said Nick. He buried his face nuzzling in the dog's fur.
Toby was embarrassed. He said ‘Thank you so much. I'll be all right now.'
‘Have a drink?' said Nick. ‘A little nightcap of whisky and water?'
‘I don't drink, thank you very much,' said Toby.
‘Ah, well,' said Nick, ‘I wish I could say that we would teach you to drink deep e'er you depart. Spiritual draughts, perhaps.' He put Murphy down on the floor. The dog jumped up, pawing his trousers, wanting to be picked up again.
‘I think I'll leave you Murphy,' said Nick. ‘We're a bit short of blankets. He'll keep your feet warm in the early morning. Nothing like an extra dog on the bed. You stay
!' he said to Murphy, pointing.
‘Thank you,' said Toby. He could have done without Murphy, who appeared to be a somewhat rebarbative dog. ‘I'll be all right now.' He sat down on the bed. He felt exhausted and desperately wanting to be alone.
Nick stood at the door looking down at him. ‘I'll tell you something funny before I go,' he said. ‘You've been put here to look after me.' He smiled, and looked once more pleasanter and younger.
Toby smiled back, not sure what to say.
‘Well, well, we must look after each other, mustn't we?' said Nick. ‘Leave your door open, in case Murphy wants to come out during the night. Good night to you.' He disappeared, leaving the door ajar.
Toby felt too tired now even to indulge in surprise and speculation. He went quickly to the bathroom, and returned to find Murphy sitting beside his bed. The monkey-like intelligence upon the dog's face was unnerving, and he stared at Toby with a kind of tense immobility which seemed like the prelude to an attack. Toby thought he had better establish some sort of formal relations, and said ‘Murphy, good dog!' holding out a propitiatory hand. Murphy considered the matter and then licked his hand thoughtfully, looking up at him from under what seemed to Toby extremely long eyelashes for a dog. This reminded Toby that his master had extremely long eyelashes for a man.
Toby looked at the half open door of the room. The landing was dark outside and there were no more sounds in the house. Toby now wanted to say his prayers. He knelt down, one eye anxiously upon the door, but could not collect his thoughts. He got up and crossed the room. There was a bolt on the inside. Very quietly he closed the door and shot the bolt. It went in without a sound. He returned to the side of his bed and knelt again, closing his eyes. There was an immediate scratching noise. Murphy was at the door, his dry blunt claws digging at the crack. Toby jumped up and opened the door again, but the dog would not go out. He stood looking up at Toby with a stare of exasperating amiability; and when Toby went to kneel down for the third time Murphy came and stood beside him with imbecile attentiveness, breathing down his neck. Toby gave up. Too tired to do anything more he put the light out and crawled into bed, leaving the door ajar. He felt the jolt as Murphy jumped up beside him and the warm weight settling down on his feet. The heavy perfumed air blew in a gentle breeze through the room to the half open door. In a few minutes both boy and dog were fast asleep.
IT WAS THE FOLLOWING MORNING. A rising bell had been rung soon after six, but Dora had learnt that it did not concern her, only those who were going to Mass. Paul had risen early, for work, not devotion. Feigning sleep, she had seen him writing at the trestle table which he had pulled up to the window. The pale sunny light of the early summer morning filled the room and from where she lay Dora could see the cloudless sky, almost without colour, the promise of another hot day. She remembered with distress that her summer frocks were lost with the suitcase and she must put on her heavy coat and skirt again.
Urged by Paul she got up just in time for breakfast at seven-thirty. The refectory of the community was the big room on the ground floor between the two stone staircases, with its doors opening on to the gravel terrace. Meals were taken in silence at Imber. At lunch and high tea one of the community read aloud during the meal, but this was not the custom at breakfast. Dora was pleased with the silence, which excused her from effort, except for such as was involved in the gesturing, pointing, and smiling, a certain amount of which went on, initiated especially by Mrs Mark and James. She consumed a good deal of tea and toast, looking out across the already baking terrace to where the lake could be seen fiercely glinting in the sun.
After breakfast Mrs Mark told Dora that she would find time during the morning to show her round the house and the estate. She would fetch Dora from her room soon after ten. Paul, who had meanwhile been at the telephone, came back with the good news that the suitcase had been found and was being returned to the railway station. Someone in the carriage had observed Dora's forgetfulness. The sun hat, however, was not to be traced. Dora promised that she would go to the station before lunch and fetch the case. This seemed to Paul an appropriate arrangement, and he disappeared in the direction of the Abbey to get on with his work. Mrs Mark would be sure to bring Dora to see him, he said, in the course of her tour. Paul was gentle this morning, and Dora became more positively aware that he was very glad indeed that she had come back. Quite simply and immediately she was pleased to have pleased him, and that and the sunshine and some indomitable vitality in her made her feel almost gay. She picked a few wild flowers in the grass near the lake and went back up to her room to wait for Mrs Mark.
As Dora looked round the room it occurred to her how nice it was to live once more in a confined space which one was free to organize, with small resources, as one pleased. The bare room brought back to her nostalgic memories of the various digs she had lived in in London before she met Paul, shabby bed-sitting rooms in Bayswater and Pimlico and Notting Hill, which it had given her so much pleasure to embellish with posters and more or less crazy items of interior decoration created at small cost by herself or her friends. Paul's flat in Knightsbridge, which at first had so much dazzled her, seemed later by contrast as lifeless as a museum. But on this room at Imber, Paul had made no mark. He had informed Dora that all rooms were to be swept daily and he now delegated this function to her. She had already discovered the place on the landing where the brushes were kept and had swept the room meticulously. She made the beds and tidied Paul's things, with caution, into neat piles. She arranged the wild flowers into a careful bouquet and put them into a tooth mug which she had filched from the bathroom. They looked charming. She wondered what else she could do to make the room look nice.
There was a knock on the door and Mrs Mark came in. Dora jumped, having forgotten all about her.
‘So sorry to have kept you waiting,' said Mrs Mark. ‘Ready for our little tour?'
‘Oh yes, thank you!' said Dora, seizing her jacket which she threw loosely round her shoulders.
‘I hope you don't mind my saying so,' said Mrs Mark, ‘but we never have flowers in the house.' She looked censoriously at Dora's nosegay. ‘We keep everything here as plain as possible. It's a little austerity we practise.'
‘Oh dear!' said Dora, blushing. ‘I'll throw them out. I didn't know.'
‘Don't do that,' said Mrs Mark magnanimously. ‘Keep those ones. I thought I should tell you, though, for next time. I feel sure you'd rather be treated like one of us, wouldn't you, and keep the rules of the house? It's not like a hotel and we do expect our guests to fit in - and I think that's what they like best too.'
‘Of course,' said Dora, still extremely confused, ‘I'm so sorry!'
‘You see, we don't normally allow any sort of personal decoration in the rooms,' said Mrs Mark. ‘We try to imitate the monastic life in certain ways as closely as we can. We believe it's a sound discipline to give up that particular sort of self-expression. It's a small sacrifice, after all, isn't it?'
‘Yes, indeed!' said Dora.
‘You'll soon get used to our little ways,' said Mrs Mark. ‘I do hope you'll enjoy it here. Paul has fitted in so well - we all quite love him. Shall we go along? I'm afraid I haven't a great deal of time.'
She led the way out of the door. ‘I expect you know the geography of the house roughly by now,' said Mrs Mark. ‘The members of the community sleep right at the top of the house in this wing, in what used to be servants' bedrooms. The main rooms on your floor are all kept as guest bedrooms. We act, you know, as a sort of unofficial guest house for the Abbey. We hope to develop that side of our activities very much in the future. At present there are still a lot of rooms which we haven't even been able to furnish. The other wing is completely empty. Directly below us on the ground floor are the kitchen quarters at the back of the house, and the big ground-floor room on the corner in the front of the house is the general estate office. Then in the middle, as you know, there's the refectory underneath the balcony, and two little rooms up above, set back behind the portico, which act as offices for James and Michael. And at the back there's the historic Long Room, a great feature of the house, which is two stories high. We've made that into our chapel.'
As she talked Mrs Mark led Dora along a corridor, past the dark well of a back stairway, into a larger corridor and threw open a large door. They entered the chapel, this time from the end opposite the altar. In the bright daylight the room looked, Dora thought, even more derelict, like an aftermath of amateur theatricals. Though scrupulously clean, it appeared dusty and as if the walls were dissolving into powder. The hessian cloth reminded Dora of school.
‘It's not a proper chapel, of course,' said Mrs Mark, not lowering her voice. ‘That is, it's not consecrated. But we have our own little regular services here. We go over to the Abbey chapel for Mass, and those who wish to can attend at certain other hours as well. And we have a special Sunday morning service here at which an address is given by a member of the community.'
They went out by the other door and emerged a moment later into the stone-flagged entrance hall. Mrs Mark threw open the door of the common-room. Modern upholstered chairs with arms of light-varnished wood stood in a neat circle, incongruous against the dark panelling.
‘This is the only room we've really furnished,' said Mrs Mark. ‘We come here in our recreation time and we like to be comfy. The oak panelling isn't original, of course. It was put in in the late nineteenth century when this was the smoking-room.'
They emerged on to the balcony and began to descend the right-hand stone staircase.
‘There's the general office,' said Mrs Mark, indicating the windows of the large corner room. ‘You'll see my husband working inside.'
They approached one of the windows and looked into the light room, which was furnished with trestle tables and unpainted deal cupboards, and seemed to be full of papers, all neatly stacked. Behind one of the tables sat Mark Strafford, his head bowed.
‘He does the accounts,' said Mrs Mark. She watched him for a moment with a sort of curiosity which struck Dora as being devoid of tenderness. She did not tap on the window, but turned away. ‘Now we'll cross to the Abbey', she said, ‘and call on Paul.'
Seeing Mrs Mark watching her husband, and seeing her now a little stout and perspiring in her faded girlish summer dress, Dora felt a first flicker of liking and interest, and asked, ‘What did you and your husband do before you came here?' Dora, when she thought of it, never minded asking questions.
‘You'll think me an awful wet blanket,' said Mrs Mark, ‘but, do you know, we never discuss our past lives here. That's another little religious rule that we try to follow. No gossip. And when you come to think of it, when people ask each other questions about their lives, their motives are rarely pure, are they? I'm sure mine never are! Curiosity that is idle soon degenerates into malice. I do hope you understand. Mind the steps here, they're a bit overgrown. '
They had crossed to the Abbey side of the terrace and were going down some stone steps, much riddled by long dry grasses, which descended to a path leading to the causeway. Dora, exasperated, kept silent.
The lake water was very quiet, achieving a luminous brilliant pale blue in the centre and stained at the edges by motionless reflections. Dora looked across at the great stone wall and the curtain of elm trees behind it. Above the trees rose the Abbey tower, which she saw in daylight to be a square Norman tower. It was an inspiring thing, without pinnacles or crenellations, squarely built of grey and yellowish stone, and decorated on each face by two pairs of round-topped windows, placed one above the other, edged with zigzag carving which at a distance gave a pearly embroidered appearance, and divided by a line of interlacing arches.
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